West Highland white terriers get their name from their native homeland and their coats' color. Unfortunately, copper is a color associated with Westies that has nothing to do with hair shade. Toxic levels of this mineral tend to accumulate in the liver, resulting in chronic hepatopathy.
A genetic abnormality in the breed is assumed to cause toxic levels of copper to accumulate in the liver but, at the time of publication, no genetic test was available to screen out carriers. That means Westie breeders can't know if a dog carries this defective gene until an animal comes down with the disease. While liver disease is prevalent in the breed, actual numbers are hard to come by. That's the conclusion of the Westie Health Foundation. A veterinarian conducting tests at the University of Missouri reported to the WHF that he thinks the issue will remain confusing until the gene is found. Chronic hepatopathy eventually leads to liver failure, but that process takes a long time. Acute liver failure can occur suddenly in Westies without toxic copper accumulation. The acute version can kill very quickly, in just a matter of days.
The liver can withstand a fair amount of assault before it's damaged enough for obvious symptoms to appear. Younger dogs are more prone to acute liver failure, characterized by the sudden onset of vomiting and lethargy. Unfortunately, many don't pull through, but those who do might experience recurring liver issues during the rest of their lives. Minimize stress in the life of any acute liver failure survivor. Westies over the age of 6 with chronic liver failure lose weight and generally appear NQR -- "not quite right." Those subtle signs can progress into depression and constant vomiting if the dog doesn't receive treatment.
While your vet will perform blood tests and ultrasounds on your Westie, the only way to definitely diagnose chronic hepatopathy is via a liver biopsy performed with either traditional or laparoscopic surgery. In addition to giving your veterinarian information about the condition of your Westie's liver, the biopsy reveals the level of copper in the organ.
To treat your Westie, your vet might prescribe corticosteroids and immunosuppressant drugs. She'll also put your dog on copper chelation therapy, medication that helps your Westie excrete excess copper through his urine. Depending on your Westie's response to the medication, you might eventually wean him off the drugs. Some dogs require medication for the rest of their lives. You'll have to keep yours on a low-copper diet. That means no liver, heart or kidney meats, which are commonly found in dog foods, and no cereals or shellfish. Your vet can help you arrange a diet containing minimal copper. Your dog's water shouldn't come out of copper piping, which means you might have to furnish bottled water.
If biopsy reveals that your Westie suffers from cirrhosis of the liver, his prognosis isn't good. That diagnosis means much of his liver is cirrhotic, or consisting of scar tissue. Medication might buy your dog some quality time, but it's an issue you must discuss with your vet.
Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.